Editorial Independence: FAQ
What does "Editorially Independent" mean?
The content of The Cambridge Student is the sole responsibility of the editor(s) and journalists who work on it. Neither the Cambridge University Students' Union (CUSU), nor the University of Cambridge, nor any other outside organisation is entitled to dictate what stories or editorials will or will not appear in the paper or on its website as long as that content is legal.
In what ways is TCS dependent on the CUSU?
The editorial, production, and delivery budgets for TCS are allocated in the CUSU annual budget, passed by CUSU Council. TCS reporters and editors compile the paper in a room on University premises that are allocated to the CUSU; the CUSU owns the computers, furniture and software in the room and pays the telephone bills from the TCS line. The CUSU pays invoices for the weekly printing and delivery of TCS, as well as for storage costs. The editors and journalists of TCS are considered as acting in service of the CUSU and its membership by providing their independent reporting, and they are covered under CUSU liability insurance. Two members of the TCS Board of Directors are drawn from the central CUSU office: the Coordinator (sabbatical) and the Business Manager (staff), and two more are elected by CUSU Council independent of the central office. The advertisements that appear in TCS are sold by the CUSU Business Manager under the authority of the CUSU Coordinator. As a legal entity, the paper's assets would be considered a subset of the CUSU's. CUSU officers frequently give interviews and advice to TCS editors and journalists in much the same way as they would to other media outlets.
Doesn't this mean that TCS necessarily lives under the fear of the CUSU squeezing them or cutting them off?
Everyone involved in the TCS project works to ensure that the answer to this question is no. There are very serious barriers to any indirect, informal or "back door" pressure being applied to the TCS editors: these both structural and cultural.
Formal barriers start with the enshrining of editorial independence in the TCS Constitution and other permanent instruments of CUSU policy. CUSU officers are prohibited by rule from interfering with the work of the editors: they would be subject to sanction or loss of their jobs/positions if they did. They cannot discipline the editorial team except through the Board of Directors, where they do not hold a majority. Uploads of the paper are conducted directly from the editors to the printers, and the delivery of the finished copies takes place automatically unless the editor requests an intervention. Almost no CUSU officers are given access to the section of the CUSU Fileserver that houses TCS documents.
Any robust system of ensuring independence for an organisation like TCS will ultimately depend on the attitudes of the people involved. Both TCS and CUSU officers have worked hard over a long period of time to cultivate a culture of healthy respect for the paper's autonomy and healthy distance between the two organisations. Under most circumstances, the content of issues in progress are not shared with anyone in the CUSU, even the Coordinator: the first he/she knows of the run in the paper is almost always when he/she picks it up on Thursday morning, just like the other students in Cambridge. The physical door between the Publications Room and the CUSU General Office is frequently locked, and all normal procedures are used by TCS journalists when interviewing CUSU officers as sources for a story. The CUSU maintains the same expectations for professional behaviour as it would make for any other part-time tenant of CUSU space, and it does not make retaliations against the paper because of its content.
Even in heated ideological circumstances, students and student officers consistently place the highest value on the security of the newspaper's independence. Recently, the proponents of a new No Platform policy called on the CUSU to exert almost all of its available pressure to prevent certain groups from using the CUSU or other University institutions as a platform to promote their views. Nevertheless, they actively agreed that, even while TCS is dependent on CUSU resources, threats to the paper would not be included in the suite of tools at the CUSU's disposal in pursuing the policy.
We believe that The Cambridge Student as a paper fully independent in its control and release of legal content is a good in itself to the students of Cambridge University. An independent TCS fulfils the objectives of the Cambridge University Students' Union better than a publication politically or editorially-controlled by the CUSU possibly could. This principle regulates the relationship between the CUSU and TCS and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
What about CUSU members on the TCS Board and the powers of CUSU Council?
The TCS Board of Directors is not tasked with, or entitled to interfere in, the normal editorial processes of choosing, writing, and publishing content in the paper. Its job is to guide the paper in a strategic direction, choose the next editor, help current editors deal with staffing and logistical issues, and play an important role in reviewing complaints to the paper. When sitting on the Board, the CUSU Coordinator and the CUSU Business Manager concern themselves with the health of the paper, not the political reputation of the Students' Union. Recent times have seen a CUSU Coordinator condemn a potential TCS action on behalf of the Students' Union while at the same time, as a member of the TCS Board, advising that it was worth exploring. Such "compartmentalisation" of roles will not always be possible and will frequently raise scepticism, but nevertheless forms a part of the cultural system that bolsters TCS' formal independence.
The CUSU Council has the power to cut the editorial or production budgets of the paper. It also has authority to hire and fire members of the Board and to alter provisions of the TCS Constitution by a supermajority vote. It is very much worth noting that the CUSU Council is a collection of JCR and MCR presidents, faculty representatives, and other special constituent representatives that are not under the control of the central Students' Union. They give orders to CUSU officers: they don't take them, and history has shown them more than willing to thwart the plans of the CUSU Executive when their students don't agree with the direction of the Students' Union. From a practical perspective, if the Council were to use its "power of the purse" to cut funding for the production of TCS, it would also have to make roughly £26,000.00 in cuts to other activities to account for TCS' profitability, gutting the priorities that the Councillors hold dear. And we should bear in mind that TCS independence is one of the things that everyone holds dear anyway. If the Council were to gather enough support to amend the TCS Constitution and actually remove editorial independence, this Q and A will obviously be taken down.
But surely the Editor must feel some informal pressure...
Editors obviously spend a fair bit of time around the CUSU Offices and get to know some of the Sabbs and other personnel pretty well. For any student in a position like that of TCS Editor, there will be issues of peer pressure, academic priorities, friendships, and interpersonal stress through which they will have to navigate. The recent experience of TCS is that the political or ideological relationships with CUSU Officers tends to play at most a relatively minor role in their general worldview and that worldview's contribution to the paper. CUSU officers are often very knowledgeable about subjects on which TCS is writing, and so in-depth background interviews with these officers may well play a very formative role in a journalist's understanding of a topic. However, the CUSU as an organisation does not think that it is healthy for TCS journalists or editors to pander to CUSU officers, and no rewards are given for doing so. Being sycophantic will not earn a person or team respect in almost any situation, and the CUSU/TCS relationship is no exception.
Further, it is a notable fact that a TCS editorship lasts for a single term of eight or so issues, not for an entire academic year. There is often very little time for an editor to become steeped in any sort of CUSU office culture or social clique, especially given the presence of a closed (and often locked) physical door between the two organisations.
What are the implications of CUSU's financial dependence on TCS on the paper's independence?
The advertisers who buy space in TCS do so because they want to reach a student audience. Like buyers of other CUSU media, the advantage they see in advertising through TCS is that students will know, understand, and choose the content that other students want in a way better than whatever one could be constructed by the advertiser. The CUSU agrees with this assessment from both a business and a student services standpoint. It does not issue directives on the content of the paper to make them more "advertiser-friendly" and rejects requests from advertisers to buy editorial content. When text is placed in the paper by an advertiser, it is marked as paid advertising space. The CUSU Business Manager does not "put in a good word" for certain advertisers because of the CUSU's business relationship with them. Aspects of the strategic direction of the paper, such as the size and format of the magazine inside, can be influenced by issues of cost and the availability of advertising revenue. But editorial content does and should remain shielded from these concerns.
What about election coverage in TCS?
CUSU Officers and staff have absolutely no right or practical ability to influence the paper's coverage of student or any other elections. People will often infer TCS editors' attitudes as a reflection of CUSU opinions, especially when it comes to elections. Even as late as May 2008, a student interpreted the TCS view of a CUSU Presidential candidate as a CUSU "smear on someone that [CUSU] doesn't like." Both TCS and the CUSU place a very high value on ensuring that there is no truth to these interpretations. In addition to the obvious political damage of these perceptions on both institutions and the obvious moral damage that would exist if they were true, there are serious sanctions to which CUSU officers would be subject, both from the Elections Committee and possibly from the University, were they to unduly influence a publication that was supposed to be editorially independent. The University Junior Proctor has recognised TCS' editorial independence, and the CUSU is not aware of any complaint based on the paper being a CUSU mouthpiece ever being upheld. The only people who control TCS endorsements or coverage in elections are the editors and journalists of TCS. Period.
Can TCS be a mouthpiece for political or other "ultra vires" speech that the CUSU could not legally make otherwise?
TCS is entitled to engage in the kinds of speech from which the CUSU is legally barred precisely because TCS is not allowed to be a mouthpiece for CUSU views. When the Students' Union has advertising space in the paper, it is marked clearly. There is no prohibition on students' unions providing free and fair spaces for students to develop and share whatever views they have, and there is no political test set to become the TCS Editor.
What about the CUSU No Platform Policy?
The CUSU will not interfere with the publication of any content in TCS that is legal. There is no stipulation in any current or proposed No Platform policy that would cause the CUSU to do anything other than make a public statement against whatever content was objectionable. It would probably use its weekly half-page of advertising or some other avenue, and CUSU officers might be unhappy with the decision of the paper. But production sanctions or institutional retaliation against the paper or its editors are not in the CUSU's No Platform toolbox.
What about CUSU's relationship with Varsity?
CUSU officers tend to have a constructive relationship with both TCS and Varsity that tends to vary much more depending on the individual editor in charge at both papers rather than on those papers' institutional connections with the Students' Union. All three organisations are housed in the same building, and members of all three are in regular informal communication. CUSU officers give interviews to either or both papers depending on the story, the reporter, and their mood. Any people who are often the subjects of journalists' praises or attacks will have varying relationships with those journalists. In the recent experience of CUSU officers, these relationships have had little to do with whether the media outlet is titled The Cambridge Student or Varsity and much more to do with the issue or grievance of the day.